We wandering Jews know the convivial, easy feeling when we meet another member of the tribe: The sense of familiarity can be immediate and tangible even halfway around the globe.
I’ve recognized that kinship at Shabbat services at The Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, and when eating falafel with Jews on a stoop in the Marais district of Paris. Meeting Jews at the 500-year-old Venetian Ghetto, the model for all such enclaves for Jews that followed, felt like greeting cousins. I felt the same walking the Prague streets where the supernatural Golem was said to protect that city’s Jewish quarter.
Nowhere, outside of Israel, was that connection deeper than in the hills of eastern Uganda a decade ago when I visited the Abayudaya Jews.
I was in Uganda writing about a relief group in the bush outside Kampala, a four-hour drive west of the 2,000-strong Abayudaya community in the hills of Mbale, near the Kenya border. My schedule allowed only one day to visit the Abayudaya, with eight hours gobbled up by the roundtrip drive.
Entebbe International Airport was the site of one of the most daring Israeli military successes, but flying in and out of it would not cut it as my only exposure to a place where Ugandan and Jewish life intersected. With the relief workers’ mission done, I hired a driver for the trip to Mbale.
The Abayudaya emerged a century ago when Semei Kakungulu, a local spiritual leader and respected hunter, embraced the Hebrew Bible and rebuffed Christian missionaries. He and his many followers kept the seventh day as the Sabbath, men were circumcised and kosher laws were observed.
En route to Mbale we saw women and children carrying plastic water jugs atop their heads. We passed a processing plant for cassava, or yucca, a Ugandan staple crop, where workers looked ghostly swathed in the white dust of the root vegetable. We rolled past mango orchards and crossed over the Nile.
We arrived in Mbale and were pointed to a Jewish cultural center under construction where workers had laid Star of David floor mosaics. Today that building serves as one of seven Abayudaya synagogues in the area, a testament to the community’s growth and spiritual focus.
The drive from Kampala had been slow. After wending our way up wooded hills, we arrived at the main Abayudaya compound just before nightfall. There was time for quick introductions and an invite to early morning services before my driver and I retired to our cabins. My internal clock oddly wired, I awoke fearing I was late to services, dressed hurriedly and discovered it was pitch black outside.
In the morning, women and tallit-draped men wearing hand-knitted kippot swayed as they davened earnestly. Later I distributed a bag of tennis balls and some Dr. Seuss books I had packed for the children. I read “Fox in Socks” to one spirited group. Other children, the girls with beads at the ends of their braids, joyously burst into Hebrew song.
Elders told me how the Laws of Moses gave the community its moral code. The Abayudaya yearn to be tightly bound with global Jewry, they told me, and felt a responsibility for the well-being of other Jews.
Their sense of community was far-reaching. Down the road from the compound I met J.J. Keki, an Abayudaya musician who ran an interfaith coffee collective and proudly introduced the Muslim, Jewish and Christian growers working with him.
The kibbutz-like Abayudaya campus was simple. School children wore plain green uniforms. Buildings were bare bones with crudely painted signage and Stars of David on their facades. Still, the people were happy, buoyed by their deep immersion in their Jewishness.
This unwavering devotion and desire to live openly as Jews, I later learned, has been a signature of the Abayudaya against the toughest of odds.
In his book “Abayudaya: The Jews of Uganda,” photographer Richard Sobol writes that the Ugandan Jews, in their formative years, were taunted and cursed at as they walked to work or collected water. “Many were pelted with stones, mud, or cow dung,” Sobol writes.
Kakungulu, in addition to founding the Abayudaya, was their chief financial backer. After he died, Sobol recounts, poverty and illiteracy befell many in the community. Nonetheless, the Abayudaya rejected tuition and school uniforms because the price tag — accepting the teachings of Jesus — was too high and they would not abandon the Torah.
Only the dark reign of Idi Amin forced the prayers of the Abayudaya Jews into the shadows. Though they could not pray in synagogues under Amin, they maintained their connection to G-d privately in their homes.
“There are communities around the world that are passionately practicing Judaism and eager to learn and to be in touch with the rest of the Jewish world,” Harriet Bograd, president of Kulanu, tells me. Her nonprofit supports the Abayudaya and other emerging Jewish populations. “These communities bring new riches to the Jewish world, as they bring their own culture and music and leadership to Jewish life.”
One year after my travels in Uganda, Aaron Kintu Moses, founder of the Abayudaya primary school, stayed at my family’s home during a US speaking tour arranged by Kulanu. I had not met Aaron during my visit to Mbale, but immediately recognized in him the Abayudaya community’s spirited love of Judaism. We talked and played guitar into the wee hours.
The next day, before his talk at a local venue that night, Aaron eagerly dug into that week’s Torah portion in the lunchtime study group at my synagogue. Aaron was scholarly and had filled in as the Abayudaya spiritual leader during the five years that his brother, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, attended a Los Angeles rabbinical school to help bring the Ugandan Jews into mainstream Judaism.
Sadly, that goal remains elusive. Many Abayudaya Jews have trouble entering Israel to study and live.
The Jewish Agency for Israel recognized the Abayudaya as Jewish in 2016. But the community’s Jewish status — many Abayudaya members were converted by American Conservative rabbis — falls short for immigration in the eyes of Israel’s Interior Ministry. The Interior Ministry is concerned about conversion being abused for fraudulent immigration attempts.
Just before Yom Kippur, Kulanu shared the sad news that Aaron Kintu Moses had died after a short illness. The news arrived just as Jews were set to read the Torah portion about the last song the great Hebrew prophet Moses sung before his death. The Song of Moses, which recounts the blessings G-d bestowed upon his people, was the centerpiece of the Shabbat service that Kakungulu had led a century ago, according to Sobol’s book.
The lawgiver Moses could see from afar the Promised Land his people would enter but he would not live to step foot on. Aaron Kintu Moses similarly did not live to experience full acceptance by the Jewish world.
But the Abayudaya Jews he left behind can.
Next month, the World Zionist Organization is set to decide on the Abayudaya community’s formal application to form a Zionist Federation within the WZO.
The Abayudaya, unlike some Jews who distance themselves from Israel and take for granted the treasure that is their identity, are fully committed and deserve WZO validation. The Interior Ministry should likewise follow the Jewish Agency’s lead and finally recognize the Abayudaya as Jews.
The plight of the devoted Abayudaya Jews calls for stepped-up efforts to identify stopgap measures that prevent the abuse of conversion, but that do not punish the Abayudaya and others with honest intent and deep love for their heritage.